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  • WisBar News
    June 30, 2014

    White House Insiders Rove and Gibbs Offer Political Perspectives at State Bar’s Annual Conference

    White House insiders Robert Gibbs and Karl Rove talk about numerous political topics in a point-counterpoint moderated by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, and in an exclusive interview with State Bar Legal Writer Joe Forward.
    Robert Gibbs, Janine Geske, and Karl Rove

    White House insiders Robert Gibbs (left) and Karl Rove (right) took questions from former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske (center) at the State  Bar of Wisconsin's Annual Meeting and Conference on June 27 in Lake Geneva.

    June 30, 2014 – From money in elections to political divide, from the presidential race to judicial appointments, White House insiders Robert Gibbs and Karl Rove recently aired their views at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC).

    To close a successful two-day AMC on Friday, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and current Marquette Law Professor Janine Geske moderated the “point-counterpoint,” asking various questions submitted by State Bar members.

    After the event, the two sat down for an exclusive interview, discussing political partisanship and the role of White House lawyers, among other topics

    Rove served as Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to George W. Bush from 2001 to 2007 and is known as “the Architect” of President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

    Gibbs, a longtime advisor to President Barack Obama, served two years in the role as White House Press Secretary from 2009 to 2011.

    While they don’t agree on much, Rove and Gibbs agreed that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is on a short list of potential Republican nominees for President in 2016.

    Gibbs said Walker is probably one of the top four potential Republican nominees. But he noted that “Republicans have a massive demographic problem,” and suggested someone like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish, could help.

    Rove agreed that Republicans will likely chose someone who is less connected to Washington, and put Walker on a list of top four or five among 12 or 13 possibilities. In any case, “Republicans have a predilection for nominating governors,” Rove said.

    Judicial Appointments

    Justice Geske asked the White House insiders to provide some insider perspectives on the appointment process when vacancies occur at the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts (2005) and Justice Samuel Alito (2006). Obama appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2009) and Justice Elena Kagan (2010).

    Rove said he was part of a committee that met regularly to talk about potential candidates in the event that a vacancy occurred. A number of the potential candidates said they didn’t want to go through the rigors of the appointment process, Rove said.

    “We kept gigantic notebooks on all potential nominees, examined everything that we could examine publicly to see if they could withstand the scrutiny,” Rove said. “Then we did the preliminary interviewing in order to frame out recommendations to the president who ultimately interviews the top people himself before making a decision.”

    Rove said he liked Roberts because his conservative views were developed as a result of his own learning and experiences, not the influence of a political family. Alito, he said, was a frontrunner in a talented pool that includes judges from the Second Circuit.

    “They write a lot on some very thorny financial and business litigation issues, and everybody said he was a great jurist. His colleagues said he is someone whose opinion carried a great deal of weight,” Rove said.

    Karl Rove and Robert Gibbs

    Karl Rove (left) and Robert Gibbs (right), who both served as White House advisors in various roles, engage in a lively discussion at the State Bar's Annual Meeting and Conference.

    Gibbs noted the contentious process that now surrounds the confirmation of judicial appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    “This is a process that has changed in an amazing way,” Gibbs said. “Justice Scalia was unanimously confirmed on a roll call vote by the U.S. Senate. You couldn’t dream of that happening right now. There’s just nobody out there that would command that.”

    Rove said there are hang-ups in part because of the Senate’s power of advice and consent. “Politicians want something in return for that appointment,” Rove said.

    Money and Politics

    Geske asked where elections and campaigns are headed in this new world of unlimited money in politics, spawned by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which ruled that restrictions on political speech by corporations are unconstitutional.

    Gibbs noted that most of the political advertising developed by PACs in recent elections attacked opponents instead of bolstering a particular candidate. Voters, he says, are smart enough to know who is benefitting, and are turned off by it.

    “I fear that we are headed, and where we’ve been headed for the last couple years, into a much more wild west, no real rules and no real limits on what can happen and who can give and how it’s disclosed,” said Gibbs. “A dire prediction would be that you would have a few wealthy individuals completely overwhelm the system.”

    Joe ForwardJoe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    Rove said: “I don’t want to get in the business of regulating free speech.” He noted instances of big money donations by liberal-leaning groups or individuals, and said unions spend heaps of cash on political speech, generally supporting Democrats.

    “I don’t have the answer,” Rove said. “All I know is, let’s not approach this from a hypocritical perspective and say this is all the big rich Republicans that are trying to do it because the Democrats have been doing it for decades.”

    Rove suggested that political parties should be allowed to accept unlimited funds directly to ameliorate the problem of undisclosed contributions to PACs.

    “I must admit, I’m not comfortable with the system. I wish parties were stronger. I would have a heck of a lot more confidence in the system if it was the Democratic and Republican parties or the Libertarian Party or the Green Party or the Vegetarian Party or the Scandinavian People’s Party that were spending this money, but it’s not,” he said.

    Rove also noted the role of news organizations as party organs. “They don’t admit that they are party organs, but in the selection of stories, and in the way that they cover things, most of the major institutions – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the three major networks, and most of the writers for most major newspapers – share an instinctive bias towards one side than the other. But that’s how it’s always been.”


    In an exclusive interview, Rove and Gibbs continued to banter about a general public perception that politicians are divided to the point of gridlock in Washington.

    “I don’t think is a hugely new phenomenon,” Gibbs said. “I do think there’s a lot more coverage when things don’t happen. I also tend to believe that we currently have a pretty evenly divided country and a pretty polarized Congress on both sides.”

    Gibbs said the redistricting process has made it difficult for politicians to reach across party lines as the number of swing districts has dwindled in the last 20 years.

    “Everybody is less worried about winning a general election in November and more concerned about getting out of their own primary,” Gibbs said. “They worry that they will be called either not conservative enough or not liberal enough, and I think that scares people away from wanting to reach out to somebody on the other side.”

    Rove noted that the government has been divided – no single-party control of the White House and Congress – in 28 of the last 40 years, and the advent of technology and social media means the public just sees more wrangling. But it has always been there.

    “I think presidential leadership matters a lot in taking some of this out of the system,” Rove said. “We’ll see if the next president can shape a different kind of outcome.”

    White House Lawyers and Social Issues

    Gibbs and Rove agreed that White House lawyers are “omnipresent” at the White House. For Gibbs, White House counsel was always present when senior staff members met each morning in President Obama’s Oval Office.

    “They are there to say how the President’s decisions ultimately fit into an appropriate legal framework,” Gibbs said.

    Rove noted that White House counsel also played a large role in the process for appointing judges and U.S. attorneys while Bush was in office. And the White House’s Chief Counsel was also required to be a top recruiter, Rove says.

    “Counsel is not only a good legal advisor to the President, he or she has to be one of the best persons for identifying and collecting legal talent,” Rove said. “Counsel is running a major law firm. It’s one of the larger offices inside the White House.”

    Asked about social issues, both mentioned same-sex marriage. Gibbs said gay marriage will continue to play out in the court system. Rove agreed, but said people are much more comfortable when decisions are not left to the courts.

    “I personally think that people are more comfortable long-term with decisions that are being made through their legislative branch,” Rove said. “This is one in which the decision is largely being made through the courts.”

    “I think we are going to have continued issues around this idea of traditional values versus nontraditional views, or changes in the law that impact values,” Rove said. 

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